Pittsburgh school district's painting sells for $905,000

| Wednesday, May 8, 2013, 1:27 p.m.

Going, going, gone.

“Interior,” a post-Impressionist painting owned by Pittsburgh Public Schools, sold for $905,000, including expenses, at auction on Wednesday by Sotheby's in New York — doubling the expected price.

“They told us there would be strong interest in the piece, and they were right,” city schools Superintendent Linda Lane said.

The 40- by 32-inch work by Henri Le Sidaner, which shows a doorway into a room bathed in gentle light, was cloaked in mystery. Its whereabouts were unknown in the art world after it appeared at the Carnegie International art exhibit here in 1933.

The Friends of Art, a long-standing Squirrel Hill nonprofit group that has donated 340 pieces of art to the city school district to inspire students, bought the painting after the exhibition.

It circulated throughout the district for decades, but no one recognized its value until an appraiser examined it three years ago as part of a larger inventory.

Adding to the mystery was the apparent lack of the painter's signature. When Sotheby's restored it, though, Le Sidaner's signature emerged. It had been hidden under the frame used by the district.

About 20 people gathered at the district's headquarters in Oakland to watch the auction online. The crowd wowed when bidding passed the $500,000 mark and erupted in cheers as the auctioneer hammered “sold” about 90 seconds after the auction's start.

Emily Bergland, spokeswoman for Sotheby's, said the buyer is anonymous, and district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said the school system expects to collect $750,000 — the “hammer price” — after the auction house deducts expenses.

Lane said the auction renewed her interest in art. She grew up in a home decorated with prints from French Impressionists such as Monet. She initially majored in art at the University of Iowa but switched to education at the urging of her father. He wanted to be sure she could get a job, she said.

“It never occurred to me that my training and love of French Impressionism would come to play in this job,” Lane said.

The school district will use the proceeds of the sale to continue to inventory and restore the remaining pieces from the Friends of Art collection.

For one district employee, the sale was bittersweet.

“I miss it,” said Pam Capretta, executive director of finance and facilities management. The painting once hung in her office.

“I was lucky to have it — just the brightness of it,” she said. “But I'm happy it's worked out for the district the way it has.”

Angela Abadilla, senior program officer for arts education in the district, wondered how this sale might continue to impact the district.

“Just how many eyes have looked at this picture?” she said. “How many remaining pieces will become valuable some day?”

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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